We recently shared some ideas presented in this article with Mining Journal as part of article that looks at the exciting future of Microsoft technology in the mining industry and how companies such as Codeco are partnering with Microsoft to achieve these goals.
How Microsoft’s HoloLens could virtually change the face of mining
This article is authored by Grey Properjohn, Snowden’s Software Development Manager
As a member of Snowden’s software development team, I know it’s not often that technology sparks the interest of the engineers and geologists here in our offices. They’re more likely to get excited about core samples, block models, their latest mine schedule, or being on site licking rocks. But what if you didn’t have to travel to get to a mine site? or what if you could physically stand in your pit? before any dirt is turned, with the ability to collaborate in real time on its design.
Enter Microsoft’s HoloLens. The HoloLens takes the maligned Google Glass project, combines it with the coolness of the Oculus Rift, the technology from Microsoft’s Kinect motion sensor, and a new holographic processing unit to provide a fascinating glimpse into the future of augmented reality (or ‘mixed reality’ in Microsoft parlance).
Early prototypes of the HoloLens are impressive. It seamlessly blends the virtual 3D content with the physical world, allows users to view, control, and interact with the content using their hands and voice. With examples ranging from building Minecraft worlds on walls and table tops (the demonstration at the E3 conference this year is recommended viewing), to NASA’s Sidekick project that sees the adoption of the HoloLens in the International Space Station providing astronauts with virtual assistance from earth, the future of mixed reality looks to be just as bright in the hands of teenagers as with professionals in the office (or space, as it were).
So that leads us to ponder, what impact could the HoloLens have on the mining industry and on those of us involved in providing innovative solutions to it?
It’s clear to see that the ability to mix virtual content with reality will provide countless opportunities to improve operational safety and efficiency as well as bringing the corporate offices even closer to the operations on the ground by connecting people in ways never imagined before.
Imagine for example, standing in an underground development heading and becoming visually aware of all the adjacent headings, stopes and declines in the immediate vicinity,
or being able to virtualise the trends in ground features like fault-zones or stress-zones ahead of the current development heading. Extend this to drilling from underground and you can virtually eliminate the potential to inadvertently intersect other existing openings. Application to open pits also sees similar benefits. The assessment of mining an open pit through underground workings takes on new meaning if you could actually ‘see’ the workings. The safety implications of such vision are clear. Indeed, even from an office environment, users can be fully immersed in the underground operation tracking the locations of all people and assets within the mine in real-time.
It will provide new opportunities for resource geologists and engineers to ground-truth their models and plans – literally by standing on a bench in the open pit and visualising the block model beneath their feet to see the latest grade control drilling results. Or, take the existing world of the traditional borehole logs and core image analysis. Rather than simply viewing a 2D representation of the logs (or even a 3D view) on a monitor or paper, think about being able to physically “lift” the core from ground and see the geology, geophysics and imagery overlaid on a 3D representation of the hole in its physical location, with the relative geology of all other boreholes in the vicinity. The potential is amazing and set to revolutionise, if not redefine, current thinking. One interesting aspect of the HoloLens is its acute awareness of the physical world around it. Imagine looking at a stockpile, not only could you visualise its genealogy on top of it but with HoloLens’ Spatial Mapping, it could generate a mesh over the Stockpile and undertake a survey in real-time, by simply walking around and looking at it.
Away from the dirt, Remote Operating Centres are already becoming a reality and demonstrating significant efficiencies to operations. Imagine enhancing the efficiency by being able to communicate with people on site, not only using voice (using Skype’s built in real-time translations so they don’t even need to speak the same language!) but actually seeing what they’re seeing on site and interacting with them as they undertake their work. This could be as simple as providing geological assistance when logging core samples or assisting with specific maintenance operations (Microsoft’s proof of concept provides remote assistance in installing a light switch). The opportunities are limitless considering the remoteness of the operations we’re used to dealing with.
It’s clear that with the impressive list of corporate partners already signed up with Microsoft on this project (such as Trimble, Autodesk, and NASA), that the HoloLens is destined to be much more than a gimmicky fad headed for the technological junk pile. If the early prototypes are anything to go by, this could be the one technology that inspires not just us propeller heads to stand up and take notice but the engineers and geologists of the world as well.